The Reading Room

Dante at 700: What the Supreme Poet can teach us about work, love, art, and life: Inferno, Canto III: Dante Alighieri, Rhapsodist of Liberty

A Reading Room series on The Divine Comedy
Dante is at last ready to enter Hell—or so he thinks. As he reaches the entrance of Hell he reads an inscription on the gates which, he tells Virgil, makes him pause:
 “Through me the way is to the city dolent; Through me the way is to eternal dole;
 Through me the way among the people lost.
 Justice incited my sublime Creator;
 Created me divine Omnipotence,
 The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.
 Before me there were no created things,
Only eterna[l], and I eternal last. Abandon all hope, all ye who enter in!”
Virgil, understanding that this harsh inscription is difficult for Dante to comprehend, explains to his literary disciple that the place they are about to enter is a place in which he will need to abandon all of his earthly presuppositions; his preconceived notions—his hopes and expectations for how things are supposed to be—will not help him here.  
 Dante, somewhat mollified, but still understandably on edge, proceeds with Virgil into the domain of “the secret things.” Dante hears so many sighs, cries, and wailings resounding through the starless sky that he himself begins to cry. The voices he hears are moaning in a great variety of languages; their agony—“whirling on / Forever in that air forever black”—is palpable. 
 Hell is a difficult place to fathom—not only for us today, with our modern sensibilities, but for Dante as well. Why should such a place exist? A place of crying, wailing, agony—the human spirit instinctively rebels at even the thought of such a place, let alone the sight of it. Dante’s struggle throughout much of the early parts of his journey to Hell—a struggle that we will inevitably share with him as well—is how to make sense of this horrid place called Hell.  
 Whether or not we believe in an actual Hell, the vision of Hell that Dante introduces here in Canto III, and which he and Virgil will be leading us through for the remaining cantos, is not a place where random, undeserved, malevolent torture is inflicted on innocent human beings. There have been far too many places of this sort created by human beings on earth, particularly during the twentieth century—replete with their own chilling inscriptions on the gates leading into these manmade hells. The Hell that we will be journeying through with Dante—though filled with its own particular torturous punishments—is a place created out of wisdom and love, Dante explains, and is governed by perfect justice. It is a place designed to give us a vision of what a world with perfect justice would look like. Scholars of jurisprudence have long debated whether the ideal manner of addressing crime should be punitive (punishing crime) or rehabilitative (attempting to cure the criminal of his evil tendencies so that he may at some point reenter society). The Divine Comedy decidedly believes in the punitive approach, but it is a punitive vision of jurisprudence in which all criminals are punished fairly and justly—no more severely, but also no less—for each and every one of their crimes. 
 The writer and political activist Emma Goldman once wrote that “every society has the criminals it deserves”—but does every society mete out the justice that its criminals deserve? Imagine that we received a chance to visit a society in which we knew with 100% certainty that everyone who was imprisoned was there deservedly, with absolutely no wrongful convictions in the entire facility. And that there was a source of Wisdom—maybe divine, maybe technological—that was able to ascertain that every single punishment precisely fit every crime. We might say we were in some kind of utopia. Short of actually eliminating crime altogether—which may not be possible without eliminating certain basic human instincts (which could result in a radical, and likely unwise, alteration of human nature in its entirety, as John and other inhabitants of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World can attest to)—a vision of justice wherein every person is punished with exacting, 100% precision for the crimes they have committed is as perfect a vision of justice as we may be able to hope for.
 It is also a vision of justice that is hopeful. This may be rather ironic, in light of the famous words at the end of the inscription on the gates of Hell to “abandon all hope, all ye who enter in!” While criminals who are sent to a place of perfect justice should abandon their hope for the possibility of being spared the punishment they deserve, the idea that there could be a place in which perfect justice might be possible should give us hope—and motivation—that we might one day be able to create better, fairer, and more just judicial systems here on earth. 
And, in spite of the admonition to abandon all hope, Dante’s vision of Hell is eminently hopeful in that it conceives of us as free agents, responsible for our actions. Dante’s Hell does not exempt criminals from their crimes on the chance that their behavior may have been predetermined by social, biological, psychological, cultural, economic, or other factors. Even more than a vision of a hopeless Hell, Dante is giving us a hopeful vision of humanity: a humanity in which we can be punished for our actions, because we are responsible for our actions—and, by implication, free; free to have willfully chosen to have committed those actions in the first place. Free to choose whether to be virtuous or whether to act reprehensibly, whether to work for the good or give in to evil. It is a vision of justice, therefore, that it is inextricably bound with a far-reaching vision of comprehensive human liberty. And it is this vision of justice bound with liberty that Dante—and we—must learn to embrace as we traverse together through the foreboding realms of the underworld.